By Ingunn Brandvoll, Norwegian Church Aid
”People are in real need of help, and Lebanon does not have the capacity to carry this load alone”, Sabeen Abdulsater says. Sabeen is the Project Officer of International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and knows better than most the situation of the over 190,000 Syrian refugees in the country. Since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) started its registration processes in January 2012, more than 2 million Syrians have been displaced and over 600,000 have fled to a neighboring country.
Sabeen, a nutritionist by education, started working with IOCC as a volunteer two years ago. She was impressed by the organization’s transparency and way of working. When IOCC expanded its program for Syrian refugees, she was offered the job as a project officer. Her visits to Syrian refugee families, have given her insight into the many challenges facing them.
She explains: “Their first challenge is to find a place to stay. Many refugees often stay 2-3 days by the road before they find something. Renting a place is very expensive. Therefore many resort to building their own temporary shelters”. And she adds: “They use all kinds of materials and waste. A popular material is paper and nylon from the mega-billboards along the main road between Beirut and Damascus.”
“Once they find a place, the second challenge is to keep warm as they often do not have access to heaters and as they lack money for fuel”. She illustrates the problem of keeping warm, by describing how two-three families may sleep together, and the ordeal of a young pregnant mother with three children, who lived in a muddy tent with no heater, winter clothes or blankets.
Both the United Nations and Non-Governmental Organizations do their best to prepare shelters against the cold, rain and wind. However, they are not able to keep up with Syrian refugees’ need for a place to stay. During December, some 1,500 people crossed each day the border between Syria and Lebanon. Many were fleeing the intensified fighting in and around the large Syrian cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Homs.
“The third challenge” Sabeen continues: “Is ensuring that children continue their education. Some parents dream abou
t going back to Syria, and are therefore reluctant to send their children to a Lebanese school. However, the biggest challenge is capacity.” Figures from the Lebanese Ministry of Education confirm this. So far 32,000 Syrian children have been enrolled into Lebanese public schools. However, with women and children estimated to represent 78% of all the refugees to Lebanon, tens of thousands of additional children are in need of access to education.
Before explaining the last challenge, Sabeen starts: “Syrians are a proud people. Many do not want to ask for help, but prefer to find solutions on their own such as a job. However, unemployment in Lebanon is high, and those, who used to come here as seasonal workers, now find their jobs taken by others.” As many other Middle Eastern countries, youth unemployment is high. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) over 20% of the Lebanese population between 15 and 25 is out of work. Consequently the ability of the Lebanese economy to provide jobs to thousands of Syrian refugees is limited.
Sabeen’s task is to help the most vulnerable of the Syrian refugee families. These include families headed by women, families with sick children and families living in miserable conditions. A crucial task is to help people register with UNHCR. This registration gives refugees legal protection and access to assistance. However, this takes often time and the assistance is not sufficient. Hence both the immediate and more continuous assistance from IOCC and its local partners is crucial. Amongst the IOCC partners are local churches, and Muslim and secular organizations. The relief includes distribution of blankets, heaters, hygiene articles, clothing and household items as well as support with rent and improvements of shelters. IOCC also trains health workers and mothers on nutrition in emergencies and supports pregnant mothers with pre- and postnatal care as well as safe deliveries.
The United Church of Christ is supporting the relief work of our partners International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch (GOPA) in Syria.